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Now on Netflix: 5 feel-good documentaries
Roger Ebert and Chaz Ebert in Life Itself (2014) - photo by Angela Treasure
It may not seem like it when you get stuck in particularly heinous traffic or spend an afternoon waiting in line at the DMV, but the world is full of inspiring people doing remarkable things. Luckily for us, its not that difficult to be reminded of that fact; all you need is Netflix. In between binge-watching episodes of Friends or Daredevil, you can turn on one of these five documentaries that are sure to lift your spirits and restore your faith in humanity.

Life Itself (2014)

As a young moviegoer (and later as a young-ish film enthusiast) I always thought of Roger Ebert as a cinematic curmudgeon, the grumpy patriarch of pictures who mostly just shook his fist at the populist masses. Life Itself is a look at Ebert after his body has failed and he has begun spending most of his time in a rehabilitation facility, attended to by his remarkable wife and being interviewed about his autobiography from which the documentary feature gets its name. The film uses footage of, and interviews with, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, allowing the viewer to get a sense of the man behind that powerful thumb. And what a life he had.

The film adeptly stitches together sit-down interviews with Eberts friends, colleagues and family members alongside footage from Eberts famous show with Gene Siskel, much of it behind-the-scenes. My favorite line from the movie was There are no strangers in family: I loved and am loved. I found myself reaching for the tissues more than once during the two-hour film.

I came away from Life Itself not only viewing Roger Ebert differently, but having a new consideration for the importance of passion, hard work and family. Ebert truly had an understanding of all three and accomplished so much in his 70 years. I finished the critically acclaimed documentary feeling inspired and overwhelmed by Eberts dedication to art and his personal commitment to excellence.

Rating: R This film has some brief language and some archived footage of a film with nudity. Ebert also had his jaw removed, and seeing him in that state throughout the movie may be disturbing to some.

Craigslist Joe (2012)

The premise for this 2012 documentary is pretty simple: Could someone live for one month based solely on the support of strangers he or she contacted via Craigslist? Add in the goal to travel cross-country while accompanied by a camera crew and thats exactly what Joseph Garner came up with. While most people would think this is a recipe for all manner of unpleasant encounters, Craigslist Joe is really good at showing the general goodness of strangers.

Garners thesis when beginning this odd journey is that technology has separated people, isolating its users behind screens and keyboards in the modern era. Garner hoped to use that same technology to find aid, find a meal and locate a couch to sleep on.

With no money, no contact with people he knows, Garner eats, finds shelter and uncovers no small amount of kindness while traveling the states. He rides in some vehicles of questionable roadworthiness, meets people with whom he may not have otherwise socialized, and encounters a whole lot of magnanimous charity. I finished the documentary feeling as though people are generally good and willing to help people in need.

Rating: NR Some mature themes and lifestyles illustrated by some of the people he encounters. Some swearing; not suitable for young children.

The Whale (2011)

A story about an affectionate killer whale narrated by Ryan Reynolds? Sign me up.

This 2011 documentary follows Luna, a young killer whale who is known to befriend locals on the west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. After becoming separated from his mother while he was very young, Luna follows boats and tourists around the Nootka Sound, forming friendships that science would say were improbable, explained away as misplaced socialization.

Lunas story raises some interesting questions about interspecies relationships. The footage leads viewers to believe that the interaction (and even love derived therefrom) was something Luna needed. Despite well-intentioned efforts to keep Luna away from humans, he always came back to the boats for the attention he so clearly craved.

The Whale isnt a story I would categorize as having a traditional happy ending, but it raises questions about the way we view our place in this universe and the nature of relationships across species. Even though not scientifically sound, it also makes viewers examine the power of love, both in the giving and receiving of it.

Rating: G

Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

When you think New York fashion, you probably dont imagine an elderly, white-haired man riding a Schwinn. But thats Bill Cunningham. Cunningham is the New York Times fashion photographer who originated the On the Street style feature for the paper, snapping thousands upon thousands of frames over the course of his career. We all get dressed for Bill, said style maven and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Cunningham is cheerful, neurotic and outwardly ordinary. And yet hes spent decades chronicling the New York City fashion scene and attending high-society functions, feeling much more comfortable with the former. Whether or not youre into fashion, Bill Cunningham New York is a special look at a man with zeal. Ordinary people can have influence. Everyone has something to say.

Part of the enjoyment of watching this documentary is the juxtaposition of the immersion in glamour and the simple lifestyle of the man capturing it all. Cunningham is cheap, not particularly fashion-forward himself, and a creature of habit. Even though his lifes work is photographing fashion, you arent left with an overwhelming sense of material importance. Its more about passion and purpose.

Rating: NR A brief glimpse of some provocative photographs and mild language, but overall appropriate for most ages.

Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriends Boyfriend (2013)

Okay, so this one may or may not be stretching the genre a bit. Though it is a stand-up comedy special, My Girlfriends Boyfriend performed by This American Life regular Mike Birbiglia is more of an autobiographical one-man show. You really are presented with a slice of authentic human experience that, I think, is on theme.

Birbiglia is one of the great storytelling comics of the recent era. Instead of the cyclical setup/punchline format popular with many joke tellers, he weaves together funny stories about his childhood and (then) present life, ultimately tricking the audiences into considering topics they probably hadnt purchased a comedy ticket expecting to encounter. Like any great comedian, Birbiglia is funny and thought-provoking and sad in the best possible way. Some of the themes in the show: People can change. Sometimes, others needs are more important than our own. We cant project our insecurity onto others.

I know, its deep. But there are plenty of laughs along the way.

Ultimately, its a fantastic comedy special that will leave you believing in love and wanting to revisit the show on a regular basis. I know I have. Bonus: Youll never hear the phrase: Thats how I feel the same ever again.

Rating: NR Some more mature jokes, but very little language or objectionable material.
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